Sidney Friedman Park: A Small Park With a Big History

by Alexandra Rogers

Once a resident of the Highlands, I remember my trips to Sidney Friedman Park. Bordered by the United States Post Office and Memorial Field on South Fraser Street, the quaint park has always provided me with an escape from the hustle and bustle of life.

With a grandmother living in State College and a Penn State alumnus as a father, I spent a great deal of my childhood visiting State College. I look back fondly on the days I would spend with my grandmother at her office downtown, as those days always concluded with a trip to “Baby’s Burgers & Shakes” for a “Teeny-Weeny” sundae and a stroll through Sidney Friedman Park. Over the years, I fell in love with State College and eventually found myself living in the Highlands as a sophomore at Penn State. I would take a stroll through the park nearly each day as I made my way to and from my West Fairmount Avenue apartment, often stopping to sit on one of its many benches to unwind after a long day. Being the only significant green space near downtown State College, the .92-acre park attracts residents of all ages with its numerous benches and picnic tables, play houses for children, and a pavilion. What many residents may not realize is that this charming oasis boasts quite the extensive history.

The 1800s
The area that is now known as Sidney Friedman Park was once home to acres of hardwood forests. These forests were vital resources for nearby villages in the 1800s as they provided wood that could be turned into charcoal. Much of this forest land belonged to General James Irvin, a prominent landowner in Centre County. By the 1840s-1850s, much of the oak tree forests had been used to make charcoal, leaving behind potential farm land. General Irvin saw the potential of the land and sold most of it off for farming purposes. One of his buyers was William Foster, who came to State College in 1845. Unbeknownst to him, the fields of his farm would one day be home to our beloved Sidney Friedman Park.

Early 1900s and the Contributions of Frances Atherton and the Literary Club
As the village’s population grew, farms like William Foster’s were replaced with streets lined with houses and businesses to serve the community. In the early 1900s, a steady supply of pure water was lacking in State College. As a temporary solution, the village drilled a deep well and installed a pumping engine to provide clean water to the village’s residents. Many residents at the time relied on their own wells and cisterns for pure water, but others still visited the old watering station downtown. The station’s water supply held the overflow from the pump house and was located at the entrance to the Pennsylvania State College at the corner of Allen Street and College Avenue.

In 1907, as a gift to the town, the Woman’s Literary Club (now the State College Woman’s Club) sponsored the construction of an iron fountain to be placed on one of the troughs, which provided water for the village’s population of humans, horses, and pigs. When the borough decided to pave College Avenue in 1920, the three-tiered fountain was removed. It sat by the roadside in Pine Grove Mills for years until Frances Atherton’s daughter, Mrs. Helen Atherton Govier, rescued the fountain and placed it in her garden at her 518 S. Atherton Street home. With historical preservation in mind, subsequent owners Dottie and Chris Roberts returned the fountain to the community during the 1996 Borough of State College Centennial Celebration.

Frances Washburn Atherton was the wife of the fourth president of the Pennsylvania State College, George Atherton. Born in 1836 in Massachusetts, Atherton relocated to State College in 1882 with her husband as he began his tenure as President of the Pennsylvania State College. Before relocating to State College, Atherton underwent district school training and pursued a teaching career starting at the age of seventeen. During her life in State College, Atherton not only raised her own children, but also taught many children of the college’s faculty. She converted her own home library into a schoolroom, organizing lessons for the faculty’s children and supervising their chores.

Atherton’s love of learning and dedication to her community led her to establish the Woman’s Literary Club of State College in 1894, which still remains as the State College Woman’s Club. The club is actually older than State College itself, which only officially became a borough in 1896. Early club members gathered in homes to discuss papers and host guest speakers on historical and literary topics. Atherton organized many of the club’s programs herself and helped facilitate the establishment of the Home Economics Department at Penn State in 1906. Atherton served as the club’s president from its founding in 1894 until poor health in 1906 curtailed her active participation in the Club. Atherton remained their honorary president until she passed away on July 8, 1913. The spirit of Atherton’s dedication to her community lives on long after her passing. In 1938, the college built the Atherton Hall dormitory, named in Frances’ honor. The hall still bears the name of Frances W. Atherton as a symbol of excellence, service, and integrity for which all female Penn State students should strive for.

The State College Woman’s Club recently celebrated its 125th anniversary in March of 2019. The Club’s members hold various fundraisers throughout the year to support several local organizations, including the Girl Scouts, the Centre Hall Library, and the HOPE Fund charity. The Club also awards five different categories of college scholarships to Penns Valley High School graduates each year. One of the Club’s longest-standing contributions to the community is its “not for profit” thrift shop, which is open each Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at its clubhouse in the Highlands at 902 South Allen Street. The thrift shop is solely run by volunteers, and all proceeds made by the shop are donated to local State College charities and organizations. Past and present members are proud of continuing Atherton’s legacy of education for women and giving back to one’s community.

Frazier Street School
With a growing town population, the borough recognized the need to create another school.  Frazier Street School was built in 1897 and was the second school building built in State College. It started off with a mere four classrooms and taught eight grades. As the school grew, it added a playground for its growing number of students. Unfortunately, the school building had significant structural problems, and, with improvements being quite costly, the school was closed in 1955. The property was offered to the United States Post Office, and the Post Office made the decision to buy two-thirds of the land to form the site of the new State College post office. The remainder of the land and the school playground were leased to the borough to become a park.

Central Parklet
The property officially became Central Parklet on December 8, 1966, thanks to the efforts of former Penn State dean Stevenson Fletcher. Fletcher was a professor of horticulture at various institutions before joining Penn State’s Horticulture Department in 1917. Fletcher became Dean of the Penn State College of Agriculture in 1940 and retired as Dean Emeritus in 1945. Throughout his career, Fletcher authored several books relating to agriculture in Pennsylvania. Fletcher was a strong advocate for setting aside areas of land for use by the community, which prompted him to help establish Central Parklet in 1966.

A plaque on the grounds commemorates Dr. Fletcher’s extraordinary contributions regarding the park and, more generally, in providing green space for the State College community. Excerpts of the plaque read:

An outstanding State College citizen for fifty-six years and president of the board of education from 1928 to 1933. His vision and leadership were largely responsible for establishing the concept that centrally located land areas should be set aside for use by all members of the community. This recreational park area is one evidence that his concept has become a reality.

Dr. Fletcher lived for many years in the Highlands. He owned a house located on the corner of West Fairmount Avenue and Fraser Street, a short walk from the park.

Renamed “Sidney Friedman Park”
With the passing of local businessman Sidney Friedman in April of 2009, the borough made the decision to rename Central Parklet as the Sidney Friedman Park on August 17, 2009. An Altoona native, Friedman came to State College in 1938 to study advertising at Penn State. After graduating, he sold ads for the Centre Daily Times, was the first commercial manager of State College’s first radio station (WMAJ), and founded two companies with the help of his business partners.  In 1963, Friedman switched his focus to real estate, selling all of his independent businesses.
With a philosophy of preservation and restoration in mind, Friedman spent the latter half of his career transforming downtown State College. In 1971, he and his sons purchased the Corner Room and Hotel State College property, the Cathaum Theatre, and several other properties. In 1976 and 1982, Friedman built Calder Square, transforming the alley into a vibrant street lined with businesses, murals, and restaurants.

Friedman was an avid supporter of Penn State as well, serving on committees for the Bryce Jordan Center Campaign, the Grand Destiny Campaign, and the Campaign for Penn State. In 1991, Friedman was named Penn State’s Renaissance Honoree of the Year for his philanthropic contributions to both State College and the university. Today, we can thank Friedman for many of our beloved spots downtown, such as the State Theatre, which he and his wife donated in 2003 to be used as a performing arts center. Friedman’s love for his community lives on through endowments at the Centre County Community Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting local nonprofits and encouraging residents to engage in philanthropy.

Today you may recognize the park as being the annual site of mesmerizing sand sculptures during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in July. Each year Greg Glenn, part-owner of Sandscapes in San Luis Obispo, CA, makes his way to State College to craft the whimsical sand sculptures that hundreds of Arts Festival attendees admire. Sandscapes emerged in the 1980s, bringing together a team of competitive sand sculptors. The company now takes on about forty projects each year, spanning across the country and even overseas. Arts Festival, however, is a one-man job for Glenn. The design each year is held a secret, only to be revealed over the four days that Glenn will make the sculpture. Glenn says that he has been sculpting and performing in State College for so long, he can’t even remember how it began. Throughout Arts Festival weekend in 2019, Glenn worked on twenty-five tons of sand to create a work of art featuring a rhino. With the cancellation of Arts Festival these past two summers, we will have to wait in anticipation for Glenn’s newest creation next summer.

Residents’ Memories and Reminiscences of the Park
Many residents of the Highlands visit Sidney Friedman Park, including our very own mayor, Ronald Filippelli. Filippelli has lived in State College for quite some time and has been a resident of the Highlands for approximately thirty-six years. When asked what his favorite part of living in the Highlands is, Filippelli said, “It’s just a wonderful neighborhood. The neighbors and the spirit of the Highlands make it a beautiful place. I love the different architectural styles, the foliage, and the flowers. Altogether, it’s just a very welcoming place.” As a long-time State College resident, Filippelli remembers when the park was first established, calling it a “welcomed addition” to the community. Filippelli notes the changes the park has undergone through the years. “The playground aspect, the pavilion, and the landscaping have all improved throughout the years. At first, it was much more of a place for people to just walk through and for children to play. Now I think it’s more of a community park.”

Filippelli’s fondest memory of the park was the decision to rename the park as Sidney Friedman Park. Filippelli was on the Borough Council at the time and was very happy to be a part of the decision to rename the park. He recalls Sidney Friedman’s wife and sons attending the dedication ceremony and said that was a very memorable moment for him.

As a future history teacher, writing this article was an exciting challenge for me. I never expected to discover such a rich and deep history that Sidney Friedman Park holds. I did encounter some research hurdles while writing the history of the park, but I believe those difficulties are what made writing this article such an intriguing challenge. I hope to have another opportunity in the future to delve into many other hidden pieces of history that the Highlands neighborhood holds.

Alexandra Rogers is a rising senior at Penn State University, majoring in Secondary Education Social Studies with minors in History, Sociology, and Special Education. She is from Haverford, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, but has spent much of her life visiting family in State College. After she graduates, she hopes to stay in State College and teach high school social studies.

Postscript:  Ann Tarantino, a local artist who has exhibited internationally, was commissioned by the Borough to design a Friedman Park mural which reinforces the welcoming and engaging environment of our town. In October 2021, Ms. Tarantino supervised community members, both young and old, to paint the mural on the wall of the northern boundary of the park.

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10 “Steven W. Fletcher” plaque, located on 241 South Fraser Street, State College, Pennsylvania.

11 Tracy M. Dooms, “Mr. Downtown,” Town&Gown May 2009: 28.

2 “Sidney Friedman,” Centre Daily Times 6 April 2009.

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Women’s Club Donates to Centre Hall Fire Company. 2021. (accessed on 1 Aug. 2021).